Bipolar and Yoga
Bipolar is admittedly one of that hardest diagnoses to manage on both a clinical and personal level, for all parties involved. Being someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder is never easy; it is emotionally exhausting, can damage relationships, encourage delinquency. Some might even say it's more difficult to live with us than to be us..those people may have a point, indeed. With a constantly fluctuating state of mind, any one remedy may be effective one day and not the next. The diagnosis by nature is fleeting, as if purposefully evading treatment, intentionally wreaking havoc in the lives of many. Even more troublesome, many people with a bipolar diagnosis don't seek out treatment or are against it altogether. Getting someone to want balance is often the most difficult hurtle to overcome in the treatment of bipolar. I want to bring attention to and address the fact that I use the term "bipolar diagnosis" as opposed to labeling it a disorder - this is intentional. I do not mean to discredit or challenge any doctor's diagnosis. However, I view it as just that...a diagnosis, not a label of inherent illness like that which is implied by terms like "disorder" or "mental illness." Please accept this as a disclaimer and always do your own research and make your own conclusions based on what resonates with you <3
Those of us who have ever experienced a manic episode may attest that they make you feel good, sometimes even like you're soaring. Personally, my manias have most commonly manifested as excessive talking, socializing, and shopping accompanied by lude behavior and a superiority complex. Compared to my every other day that was filled with insecurity, body-image issues, anxiety, and depression, my manias felt good! For most of my life, I believed that this "low tide" of my diagnosis was my natural state - who I was when I wasn't being bipolar or having a mood swing. So, for a long time, I thought having a bipolar diagnosis wasn't entirely bad - it took away my insecurity, my social anxiety, my self-hatred and it made me feel good..it allowed me to love myself and be loved by others at least for a little while. I find this is the case with many people whom have disclosed their bipolar diagnosis to me - they view their mania ("high tide") as an enjoyable escape from their depression ("low tide") and therefore avoid treatment.
Experimenting with medications further solidified my intent against any treatment of my diagnosis. Every medication I tried had some strange side effect from tremors to absent-mindedness and none of them made me feel "better." This is really when I began to evaluate what the goal of treatment was..and who was actually benefiting from my being treated. Many skeptics believe the way 'mental illness' is treated in this country is for the sake of the community rather than the patient. My experience with medications led me to believe they might be right..Sure, my outlandish behavior caused by my manic attacks was curbed and outwardly, I'm sure I was more manageable and complacent..but I was stuck in this gray area with no highs or lows..just mediocreville. As, a teenager in high school, this was unacceptable. So I discontinued all conventional treatment of my bipolar diagnosis at that point and began a long and tumultuous journey of self-care and discovery.
Yoga for Bipolar
It has not been until more recently that I truly began to understand the nature of my diagnosis - what bipolar means for me. It is important to note that, of course, bipolar symptoms will manifest differently for each individual affected by it, this is simply my experience.
In considering the treatment of bipolar, we often consider ways to alleviate the symptoms of mood swings, usually by manipulating brain chemistry with mood stabilizing medication. If we dig deeper, beyond the surface symptoms we may understand the ultimate goal is balance and stability. It's so obvious and simple right? It seems much more likely one would cultivate balance and stability in a yoga practice rather than in a pharmaceutical lab.
Let us consider the most basic characteristics of bipolar disorder as listed in the DSM-IV-TR:
Bipolar disorder is viewed as a spectrum of disorders on a continuum ranging in severity and functionality. The DSM-IV-TR lists 4 subtypes, all of which share the common element of inconsistent affective states; mood swings ranging from mild to severe, with symptoms ranging from annoying to destructive. With the presence of one or more manic or hypomanic episodes and one or more depressive episodes in a specified amount of time, we have the birth of a mental illness! When thinking on the underlying characteristics of my own diagnosis, particularly the element of rapid cycling which is the most challenging aspect of managing my own diagnosis, an asana sequence seemed to just speak to me..one pose flowing into the next.
Asana is the Sanskrit term for the physical poses/physical practice in yoga and are very relevant to those interested in using yoga to help manage their bipolar. Perhaps even more important than the poses themselves is our approach to our practice - slow and steady movement and breath, grounded focus both physically and energetically, active muscular engagement. Synchronizing breath with movement has been inexpressibly huge for me in managing my inner state of balance. I cannot stress enough how closely related the mind and the breath really are: when we move slowly and steadily with our breath, we not only slow down our entire nervous system on a physical level but we grow strong and stable psychologically from our connection with the core of our self. Moving through our asana practice slowing and steadily challenges the body physically and helps the mind focus on the present moment. It encourages muscular engagement that will wring out aggression and excess energy built up in the body and help promote a more even tempered mood. Setting a steady pace also invites in a grounding, stabilizing energy into our yoga practice that we may cultivate more permanently in our lives with regular practice. Pranayama is the Sanskrit term for breathing exercise and is also a great way to establish balance via our breath. Regular pranayama practice is absolutely integral for anyone with bipolar disorder, or who just need more balance in their life. I recommend Nadi Shodhana or Anulom Vilom (Alternative Nostril Breathing), which I have a blog about and instructional video on youtube.
If you have any questions about Bipolar Yoga or any of the concepts outlined in this post, please contact me! I offer free consultations for private yoga therapy sessions oriented toward re-establishing balance for those of us who may be "balance-challenged."